A tribute honoring lesbian Puerto Rican educator and activist Dr. Antonia Pantoja was held June 1 at the Institute for Puerto Rican Arts and Culture. About 50 people attended the event, which kicked off both Puerto Rican Independence Month and Pride Month.
Hosted by The Legacy Project and ASPIRA Inc. of Illinois, the tribute began with a reception followed by remarks by the executive director and founder of The Legacy Project, Victor Salvo; ASPIRA of Illinois Chair Fernando Grillo; renowned Puerto Rican painter, graphic artist, writer and radio and television personality Antonio Martorell; and DePaul University Professor Lourdes Torres.
One of the 2012 Legacy Walk inductees, Pantoja was an educator focusing on the needs of disadvantaged children. She co-founded the Hispanic American Youth Association which later became the Puerto Rican Association for Community Affairs and founded both the National Puerto Rican Forum and ASPIRA. She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Bill Clinton in 1996.
Salvo spoke about Pantoja's importance within the Puerto Rican community and how he came to know her work. "Those of us who are LGBT grew up without historically significant role modelsstrangers to ourselves, our history and each other," he said. "Like the children Dr. Pantoja sought to reach, we didn't learn about people like us in school. We have chosen to create a physical spaceThe Legacy Walkwhere people will come to read about the contributions that LGBT people like Dr. Pantoja have made to world history and culture.
"I met Dr. Pantoja in the fall of her life and I came away from that meeting with the realization that her ongoing discussion was of self-identity. Dr. Pantoja dared to challenge the establishment on education and poverty and by working on these causes she evolved into a person whom has had an everlasting impact on ourour community, society and world," said Grillo.
Martorell said, "Toni was a woman of her word and she said it so well. I always met Toni at crossroads in our lives as we were moving from one place to another and what I saw was that she never thought small she always thought big since she had faith in everyone she met." He also talked about how pleased he was to be asked to create the cover art for Pantoja's autobiography, Memoir of a Visionary: Antonia Pantoja.
Torreswho introduced Salvo to Pantojaspoke about why she nominated Pantoja to be a Legacy Project inductee: "I think we need to celebrate all aspects of her life, her passion and commitment to a wide range of social issues as well as her passion and love for women. I remember how pleased I was to see public recognition of her lesbian relationship in the obituary that ran in the New York Times with the quote, 'She is survived by her partner, Dr. Wilhelmina Perry." Torres noted that Pantoja finally claimed her lesbian identity in her autobiography which was published just before her death.
A screening of Lillian Jiménez's award-winning 2009 documentary, Antonia Pantoja Presente!, followed Torres' remarks.
Although Perry was unable to attend the event, she did relay her sentiments: "I am deeply moved and thrilled that Dr. Pantoja is being honored in this way. I know that my activism, since her death, for LGBT rights is something that would have brought her great pride. I have shared with some people that immediately prior to her death, Toni had made the decision to advocate on behalf of LGBT youth. Her remarks were, 'I have worked hard for so many youth, but I have not served these youth who are most abandoned and vulnerable.' She was deeply concerned about what we learning of homeless youth in New York City. It is my great pride, as her partner, to wish you a glorious celebration."
Co-sponsors included the Association for Latino Men in Action ( ALMA ) , Amigas Latinas, La Casa Norte, Puerto Rican Agenda, Unidos, Vida/SIDA, and Primera Iglesia Congregacional de Chicago.
See www.legacyprojectchicago.org and www.aspirail.org for more information.